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The National Trades' Union & Worker's Strike of 1834

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  • 00:00 Early 19th Century
  • 1:00 Journeymen Assemble
  • 1:45 Mill Girls
  • 3:32 National Trades' Union
  • 4:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson discusses the formation of the first National Trades Union and the Lowell workers' strike of 1834. It defines mill girls and journeyman, while also discussing the working conditions of early 19th-century America.

Early 19th Century

When discussing the history of labor unions, I'm guessing most of us might picture burly men raising their fists in anger. Although this was sometimes the case, early labor unions owe at least part of their existence to a group of feisty young women in Lowell, Massachusetts. To explain this, let's take a look at the National Trades' Union and the workers' strike of 1834.

For starters, the early 19th century saw a rise in American manufacturing. This was especially true in the Northeast where factories sprang up and production soared. For the guys at the top, things were looking fine!

Unfortunately, the same can't be said of the life of the average American worker. While factory owners and operators enjoyed the ride, workers and tradespeople struggled with long working hours, unsafe working conditions, and low wages. Making matters worse, they were subject to layoffs whenever the owners and operators saw fit.

Journeymen Assemble

Soon, the grumblings of these workers turned to action, and the 1830s saw the idea of labor unions come to the forefront. Organizers known as journeymen, trained and skilled workers under the employ of someone else, organized into local trade assemblies. In fact, the early 1830s saw labor unions thriving in places like New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia. As forces to be reckoned with, these individual assemblies fought for things like decreased working hours and increased wages. Although they made some progress, it wasn't until they united that things started to really shake and move.

With this, we come to the year 1834 and the girls of Lowell, Massachusetts.

Mill Girls

During the early 1800s, the textile industry, or cloth and fabric industry, took off in Lowell, Massachusetts. Interestingly, most of the workforce of this industry were women between about 15 and 30. Known as mill girls, they worked long hours ('long' meaning 70 hours or more a week). They worked in dangerous conditions for very little pay. Unlike today, no inspectors made sure safety requirements were being met. The factories were hot, the machines were dangerous, and little regard was given to worker health and well-being. Despite all this, the factories provided the mill girls with a way to make money and they took it. That is, until the year 1834!

In 1834, the mills at Lowell started suffering due to overproduction. With supplies up, textile prices started to drop. To counteract their loss in earnings, factory owners slashed the mill girls' wages by about 15%.

Whether spurred on by the newly-forming unions of the time or just plain fed up, some mill girls rallied under the slogan 'Union is Power!' Of course, this didn't sit too well with the higher-ups, and the boisterous young girls were fired. Refusing to go quietly, the young women of Lowell took to the streets and protested their unfair working conditions and their pathetic treatment. Using today's language, the Lowell women of 1834 went on strike!

Unfortunately for these young women, their strike didn't cause enough pain to be successful. Most of the strikers returned to work. However, their brave actions set the groundwork for more changes to come. In fact, one major change came in the very same year!

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